William S. Hart Union High School District officials announced they’ll have students, teachers and staff working online for the beginning of the school year this fall and, after a few weeks, decide whether to return to campus.
The district had been deciding between a blended model — or having different groups of students come to school on different days — an online-only model like the spring, or a complete return to campus.
“I am recommending tonight that the governing board temporarily authorize the start of the school year in an online instructional format,” Superintendent Mike Kuhlman said at Wednesday’s meeting. “I recommended that we establish a target date of five weeks for this temporary revision, which coincides with the first progress reporting period.”
Making this decision now, Kuhlman said, would allow for the district to immediately pivot to teaching teachers how to conduct live online instruction and improve upon what they had learned during the spring semester. After school begins on Aug. 11, and following a five-week period online, district officials could look at considering the blended model they had previously discussed, while working to ensure the safety of those on campus.
Ultimately, the board voted 5-0 in favor of the superintendent’s recommendation, which called for online learning at the beginning of the semester with a plan to revisit the topic five weeks into the semester.
Prior to Wednesday’s meeting, board President Linda Storli said up until the day of the meeting the board was receiving emails and calls from stakeholders, parents and teachers. Storli said she shared her concerns about students’ mental health, as well as the fact that she felt no one truly wanted to do online only — but the situation dictated it to be a necessity, in multiple conversations with parents.
The district’s decision was an emergency item placed on the agenda Tuesday night. District officials said the decision to do so was due to recent updates from state and health officials this week. More than 1,300 residents tuned into the governing board meeting held via virtual conference and posted live to YouTube.
The Hart District’s decision runs similar to the decisions made by some other Los Angeles County school districts, such as the Los Angeles Unified School District, which adopted the virtual format for the fall. However, the district’s plan to reevaluate in five weeks, and possibly approach a blended model, was relatively unique.
The decision to go online was supported by a number of teachers, some of whom sent in public comments during the board meeting. Sarah Avanessian, Hart District Teacher of the Year and English Department chair at Castaic High School, was one of those who spoke out against moving back into the classroom amid a pandemic.
District officials said they received 173 comments for Wednesday’s meeting.
As a parent herself, Avanessian said there are merits to parents having concerns about the education their students are receiving through a distance learning model, such as they did last spring.
She said, however, that she was confident the teachers could produce a “more streamlined and synchronous” program in the fall online format than they had during an emergency situation in the spring.
“We are in such a difficult situation and I am confident that we can come together as a district and a community to effectively put this temporary distance learning plan in place,” said Avanessian.
The district had done a survey on June 1 that said a majority of Hart District teachers had approved of either going to a blended model (37%) or an on-campus preference (52%).
However, a one-question survey put out by the Hart District Teachers Association on Monday night, according to HDTA President John Minkus, said 85% of the approximate 700 teachers who responded did not feel safe returning to the classroom this fall.
“We would all prefer to be in our classrooms with our students,” said Minkus during the meeting. “Yet, we must not risk family members who they (teachers) are responsible for. This is not war, there is no acceptable loss. It is clear that in our current situation, the risk of in-person instruction is greater than the reward.”
Avanessian said that since that June 1 survey had been taken, teachers had learned more of the logistics and hearing the changing information from the country, and many had changed their minds including herself.
During the public comment section for the meeting, a number of parents and students advocated for the online learning model in the fall, due to safety concerns. Saugus High School music teacher Kaytie Holt, who had been recognized in the aftermath of the Saugus High Shooting in November, said she had not survived a shooting to die from COVID-19.
“I can tell you that teachers have a lot of questions and the district is doing their best to answer them,” said Avanessian. “However, there is changing information daily coming from L.A. County.”
On the opposite side, students from the district begged the district to allow them to return to school, promising to wear a mask and gloves. Parents, such as Beth Mcmillan, a West Ranch High School parent, said she did not want a substandard education for her child.
“Please don’t make private school the only choice parents have if we want to have our kids back in the classroom,” said Mcmillan. “If that’s the only choice, I know many parents will be exercising that option.”
Board member Bob Jensen asked teachers to “step up” in the coming months to take professional development training for the online platform. Board member Joe Messina and Jensen both wanted an amendment added that emphasized the overriding goal of the district to be getting kids back in the classroom.